China-Cambodia Relations: A History Part One

Relations between China and Cambodia date back at least to the 13th century, when Chinese emissary Zhou Daguan—also known by his Khmer language name Chiv Ta Koan—visited the Kingdom of Angkor for one year, from 1296 to 1297.

More than 700 years later, ties between the two countries are at their strongest ever.

But despite their long diplomatic history, China and Cambodia only grew close during the Second World War and after Cambodia gained its independence from France in 1953.

The relationship developed while the globe was caught amidst a struggle between communism and democracy when World War II ended in 1945. At the time, the Kingdom of Cambodia under Head of State Price Norodom Sihanouk declared neutrality. However, Cambodia pursued relations with China in order to mitigate the influence of neighboring countries Thailand and South Vietnam, which had shown support for anti-Sihanouk rebels.

Isolated due to its adoption of communism, China sought support from Cambodia in its bid for a seat at the United Nations over Taiwan, which had broken away from the mainland after Mao Zedong took power in 1949. China also hoped to maintain Cambodia as an ally amid growing U.S. influence in Southeast Asia.

Monineath (L) waves to the crowd after being welcomed by China's Prime Minister Zhou Enlai (C) upon his arrival in Beijing on April 23, 1973. Some experts view the strong friendship between Sihanouk and Chinese Premiere Zhou Enlai as contributing to improved relations between the two countries. Henri Locard, a French scholar of Cambodian history, has said Zhou’s aristocratic and deferent mannerisms helped to win Sihanouk over and convince him that China could be trusted.

The two men first met on the sidelines of the April 1955 Bandung Conference in Indonesia, when leaders of several newly independent former colonies in Asia and Africa gathered to discuss how to prevent colonialism.

Ten months later, Sihanouk made his first official visit to China, and a month after that, he invited Zhou to travel to Cambodia. China considers the two visits unprecedented because they were made while the two countries’ diplomatic ties had yet to be formalized.

On July 19, 1958, Beijing and Phnom Penh established official diplomatic relations after Cambodia recognized the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China and rejected Taiwan’s claims of independent statehood.

Ties continued to improve until 1967, when Sihanouk discovered that China was backing a communist movement in Cambodia, though tensions were later mitigated after Zhou met with the Cambodian ambassador in Beijing.

When Cambodia’s monarchy was deposed in a 1970 coup d’état orchestrated by Marshal Lon Nol, the Chinese Communist Party under Chairman Mao fully supported Sihanouk’s exiled government and its movement against the newly formed Khmer Republic.

Support for Khmer Rouge

A photo taken in the 1970s outside of Cambodia shows China's chairman Mao Zedong (L) greeting top Khmer Rouge official Ieng Sary (R), also known as "brother number three", while Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot (C) looks on. The Khmer Rouge seized the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on April 17, 1975, marking the start of a genocidal regime during which killed up to two million people died between 1975 and 1979. Photo: AFP On April 17, 1975, the China-backed Khmer Rouge overthrew the Khmer Republic and renamed the country Democratic Kampuchea. Led by Pol Pot, the regime ruled the country for nearly four years, during which nearly 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, exhaustion, forced labor and execution.

While there is no known historical record showing the extent of Beijing’s assistance to Pol Pot, China is believed to have been the main source of funding for the Khmer Rouge—supplying the regime with military, economic and commercial aid. Zhang Chunqiao, the architect of China’s Cultural Revolution, also traveled to Democratic Kampuchea in secret to help the Khmer Rouge draft a constitution in January 1976.

However, Andrew Mertha, author of the book “Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge,” told RFA’s Khmer Service that Pol Pot’s regime showed little deference to Beijing despite the assistance.

“China wanted its airfield that it was building for Democratic Kampuchea to be located upon the northwestern part of the country, and in fact, the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea insisted that it be in the center, in Kampong Chhnang [province],” Mertha said.

“China had also sought to build a network of radar facilities along the coast in order to monitor activity in the gulf of Thailand, and again, the Democratic Kampuchea regime insisted on and they got the placement of those radars to be along their inland border with Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.”

According to Mertha, two main factors prevented China from effectively influencing leaders of the Khmer Rouge in their military and economic policies.

“The first was there was a real suspicion on the part of the leaders of Democratic Kampuchea against any outsiders, even including China which was their best friend at that time,” he said, adding that the regime was cautious of efforts by Beijing to colonize their country.

“The second was, I think, [that] China was unable to work with the lack of infrastructure and trained personnel on the ground in Cambodia.”

Mertha said that while the Khmer Rouge resisted Chinese influence on its military and economic sectors, the regime’s inattention to Democratic Kampuchea’s commercial sector allowed Beijing to benefit from essentially controlling the country’s exports.

Vietnam invasion

Members of an artillery unit of the Vietnamese armed forces resist Chinese invaders along the border between Vietnam’s Lang Son Province and China on February 23, 1979. On February 17, 1979, after months of verbal and armed clashes, China launched a massive offensive against Vietnam to teach its communist ally "a lesson" for becoming too independent for Beijing's liking. The brief-but-bloody so-called “Third Indochina War” was rooted in the ideological rivalry between China and the Soviet Union. Photo: AFPOn Jan. 7, 1979, Vietnam’s armed forces and soldiers from the Kampuchean United Front for National Salvation (KUFNS)—which included many dissatisfied former members of the Khmer Rouge, including Cambodia’s current Prime Minister Hun Sen—invaded Phnom Penh and ended the Democratic Kampuchea era.

During the invasion, China launched a series of attacks across the border in Vietnamese territory in response to Hanoi’s ouster of the Khmer Rouge, which espoused a similar ideology to that of the Chinese Communist Party.

At a subsequent meeting of the UN Security Council, China demanded that the council condemn Vietnam for its invasion of Cambodia. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, called on the council to censure China for its attacks on Vietnam. The US urged China to withdraw its troops from Vietnam and Vietnam to pull its forces out of Cambodia.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, a government installed by Vietnam ruled Cambodia, causing Chinese influence to wane in the country. Beijing continued to provide assistance to the group—which maintained a presence along the border with Thailand—and lend it political support until the Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodia Conflict were signed in Paris in 1991.

During the era of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea—widely viewed as a Vietnamese puppet state—Chinese publications were banned, and Chinese language schools were shut down. Hun Sen wrote an essay in 1988 denouncing China for Cambodia’s myriad problems.

However, Hun Sen embraced China after he launched a coup to remove Prince Norodom Rannariddh—Sihanouk’s son—as Cambodia’s First Prime Minister in July 1997. China, which saw Rannariddh as too supportive of Taiwan independence, also welcomed Hun Sen’s leadership of Cambodia and ties between Phnom Penh and Beijing have steadily improved ever since.

From hatred to love

Vietnam’s invasion of Democratic Kampuchea in 1979 removed the ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge from power and precipitated a decline in China’s influence on Cambodia that lasted for more than a decade under a puppet government controlled by Hanoi.

Beijing continued to provide the deposed Khmer Rouge with military and political support as part of a bid to maintain influence in Cambodia, but the Vietnam-installed People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) government countered by banning the propagation of Chinese culture in the country.

Chinese schools were shut down by the PRK, forcing members of the ethnic Chinese minority to learn their native language in secret, while leaders such as Cambodia’s current Prime Minister Hun Sen denounced China in their writings as the root cause of the country’s problems during the 1980s.

However, Hun Sen embraced China after he launched a successful coup to remove Prince Norodom Rannariddh—son of then-King Norodom Sihanouk—as Cambodia’s First Prime Minister in July 1997.

A post-coup era of harassment against political rivals led international donors to withhold assistance to Hun Sen’s government, forcing him to change his stance towards Beijing and seek improved relations between Cambodia and China.

China, which had seen Rannariddh as too supportive of Taiwan independence, also welcomed Hun Sen’s leadership of Cambodia and became the first nation to officially recognize the legitimacy of his new government.

One month after the coup, China provided U.S. $6 million worth of assistance to Cambodia, high-level delegations from the two nations began a regular exchange of official visits, and economic ties were strengthened.

In December of 1997, China provided Hun Sen’s government with a loan of U.S. $2.8 million to bolster Cambodia’s military and by July 1998 the flow of investment from China to Cambodia had increased by nearly three-fold to U.S. $113 million from U.S. $36 million a year earlier.

However, Taiwan remained the largest investor in Cambodia and Hun Sen refused to scale back relations with Taipei to please Beijing.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (L) chats with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on February 10 1999, amid speculation that China would block international efforts to prosecute Khmer Rouge leaders. Photo: AFPIn February 1999, Hun Sen visited China for the first time as the leader of Cambodia and returned with an interest-free loan of U.S. $200 million, in addition to a pledge of U.S. $18.3 million in aid from Beijing.

The Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh at the time declared the package to be the largest amount of assistance granted by China to a foreign nation and hailed Hun Sen’s visit as a “new high” in China-Cambodia relations.

Additional support

In addition to economic aid, China also began to ramp up support for Cambodia’s military following Hun Sen’s visit.

In December 1999, China provided U.S. $1.5 million worth of materials for the construction of a military institute at Thlork Ta Sek in Cambodia’s Kompong Speu province, as well as a substantial amount of military equipment. After its completion, additional assistance to the facility made China the largest source of aid to Cambodia’s military.

In response to concerns that China was buying influence in Cambodia’s armed forces, Royal Cambodian Army infantry commander and deputy director of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Hun Maneth, who is also Hun Sen’s eldest son, assured the public that the institute at Thlork Ta Sek was “under the control of Cambodia.”

“The teachers are Khmer, the learners are Khmer and all military officers shall serve the Khmer nation—not China or any other country,” he said at the time.

China also lent its support to Cambodia in creating a tribunal to try the former leaders of the Khmer Rouge, under whose regime some 2 million Cambodians died from starvation, exhaustion, forced labor and execution.

However, China refused to support international participation in the trial process and Hun Sen said that he considered an international tribunal to be a “trick of the United Nations,” which should focus on alleviating poverty in Cambodia instead of bringing the Khmer Rouge leaders to justice.

Cambodia visits

In November 2000, then-president Jiang Zemin became the first Chinese leader to visit Cambodia, during which he and Hun Sen announced a widening in scope of bilateral cooperation. Hun Sen declared his support for Beijing’s view of Taiwan as a breakaway province from China.

Two years later in November, China’s Premier Zhu Rongji visited Cambodia for two days, after which Beijing canceled some U.S. $200 million of Phnom Penh’s loan debt.

During his visit, Zhu also provided Hun Sen’s government with an interest-free loan and additional assistance valued at U.S. $12.5 million, while the two countries agreed to prioritize agriculture, human resources and infrastructure development in bilateral cooperation.

In 2006 during a visit to Phnom Penh by Premier Wen Jiabao, China pledged U.S. $600 million in development assistance and loans to Cambodia, including U.S. $33 million for the construction of a new office for Cambodia’s Council of Ministers.

The package was provided as a gift to Cambodia ahead of the 50-year anniversary of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Phnom Penh, a milestone that was officially recognized in 2008.

Reported by Cheng Mengchou for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.